On this day in Connecticut history, Revolutionary War general and French & Indian War veteran Israel Putnam passed away on his farmstead in Brooklyn, Connecticut. Best known today for his participation in the Revolutionary War’s crucial Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, Putnam had actually earned a reputation for bravery and boldness long before hostilities broke out between the British Army and American colonists.
Born in Massachusetts in 1718, Putnam moved to northeast Connecticut in 1740 after purchasing land in the towns of Pomfret (part of which would later become the town of Brooklyn) with his brother-in-law. A few years later, at the age of 24, he became a local hero for following a marauding wolf into its den and killing it after it had decimated the local sheep population. Stories (often greatly exaggerated) spread across the region of young Putnam’s courage, and to this day visitors can still visit the “Putnam Wolf Den” site in Pomfret, in Connecticut’s Mashamoquet Brook State Park.
When the French and Indian War broke out in 1755, Putnam enlisted with a regiment of Connecticut militia where he caught the attention of the famed Robert Rogers after exhibiting bravery in the Battle of Lake George. Rogers recruited Putnam into his company of Rangers where he served with distinction, escaping disasters including shipwrecks and Indian capture on many occasions. By the time the war ended in 1763, Putnam had earned the rank of Major, and he returned to his hometown of Brooklyn an even bigger hero than before.
As a prosperous farmer and popular tavern owner, Putnam shared the growing resentment of his fellow New Englanders over new British taxation policies of the 1760s, and became a leading member of the Connecticut Sons of Liberty. According to legend, upon hearing the news of the British march on Lexington and Concord in April 1775 while plowing his fields, Israel Putnam immediately dropped his plow, mounted the nearest horse and rode non-stop to Cambridge, Massachusetts to offer his military services in defense of his countrymen.
With his French and Indian War reputation preceding him, Putnam became one of the first four officially-appointed major generals to serve under George Washington in the newly-formed Continental Army in 1775, at the age of 57. Despite his notable bravery leading New England troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill, Putnam had mixed success as a commanding officer during the Revolutionary War. Military historians note that he was much more successful managing smaller units in unconventional, guerilla-style tactics — like he did in the French and Indian War — than he with the larger, more formally-organized army units placed under his command during the Revolution. Furthermore, while his brash, aggressive, and rough-around-the-edges personality endeared “Old Put” to the men serving under his command, he clashed with virtually every other high-ranking officer he worked with in the Continental Army. After his troops were routed during the Battle of Long Island in 1776, Putnam was assigned to increasingly unimportant patrols and commands, and in late 1779, a stroke that left him partially paralyzed ended his military career. He returned to Brooklyn, once again welcomed as a consummate hero, where he lived until his death on May 29, 1790. Connecticut educator and author Timothy Dwight penned Putnam’s epitaph, writing that he was “ever attentive to the lives and happiness of his men” and “dared to lead where any dared to follow.”
To this day, Israel Putnam is remembered as one of the most legendary, larger-than-life figures of 18th century Connecticut and as a national hero of the Revolutionary War, with towns and counties named after him in ten states. His original gravestone in Brooklyn was so heavily visited — and chipped away for souvenir shards — that had to be removed to the State Capitol building for safekeeping. Putnam Memorial State Park in Redding, Connecticut preserves a campsite where Revolutionary War troops under Israel Putnam spent the winter of 1778 – 1779. Putnam is also honored with statues at Bushnell Park in Hartford, and on Route 169 in his hometown of Brooklyn.
Patrick J. Mahoney, “Israel Putnam: A Youthful Trailblazer Turned Colonial Militiaman,” connecticuthistory.org
Gene Procknow, “General Israel Putnam: Reputation Revisited,” Journal of the American Revolution
Jesse Leavenworth, “Israel Putnam, A Man of Legendary Courage,” Hartford Courant
Fanny Greye Bragg, “Israel Putnam,” Connecticut Sons of the American Revolution